Eric Hobsbawm – towering above his critics

October 7, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Naturally there have been many glowing tributes to Eric Hobsbawm following his death on 1 October at the age of 95, but there have also been some extremely ungenerous slights and grotesque attacks on his integrity as an individual and as an historian.

It is a deplorable fact that literally within hours of the news of his death being announced, supposedly respected institutions like the BBC saw fit to pour out their bile in a sickening attempt to besmirch the reputation of a man of obvious greatness, not only travestying what he stood for but slighting his very professionalism as a writer and commentator. Nick Higham on the BBC’s website, for example, offers this cliché-ridden travesty in what purported to be serious analysis;

‘Eric Hobsbawm was remarkable among historians in being proud to call himself a Marxist long after Marxism had been discredited in the West.
‘To his admirers he was one of the greatest historians of the 20th Century. To his critics he was an apologist for Soviet tyranny who never fully changed his views.
‘But he was too shrewd, too open-minded to pursue a narrow Marxist approach in his work or his politics.’

Thus, readers are encouraged to see Hobsbawm as ‘remarkable’ for the fact that he remained a Marxist, at a time when all evidence apparently pointed against its continuing relevance, according to this BBC expert, who wishes to assert that there can be no other remaining Marxist historians at work today; ‘an apologist for Soviet tyranny ‘ is simply one who refused to tow the establishment line and is clearly meant to imply that Hobsbawm’s opinions remained well beyond the pale of respectable right-thinking society. Finally, even the suggestion of his ‘shrewdness’ has within it a coded implication of dishonesty, and might even be construed as having a racist connotation.

It is quite absurd that these canards about Hobsbawm being the ‘last Marxist historian’ are trotted out once again; it not only does a disservice to our intelligence, but more importantly it is highly insulting to the memory of a remarkable person who was intellectually head and shoulders above all of his critics and who has only just died.

Under the headline, ‘A believer in the Red utopia to the very end’ conservative historian Michael Burleigh asserted in The Daily Telegraph that ‘grotesque facts never got in the way of Eric Hobsbawm’s devotion to communism’; this nasty denunciation goes on to accuse him of being ‘deceitful’ and, this author cannot resist drawing upon Orwell to utter a clear racist comment, calling Hobsbawm a ‘foreign guru’, which is surely just about as low as you can get.

We should rightly be incensed by some of these comments that have appeared so far, which even though sadly predictable and facile seem so inappropriate coming within just a few hours of Hobsbawm’s death.

Hobsbawm was in fact the last of a remarkable generation and obviously more than just a historian. As a ‘public intellectual’ his example enabled us to remain connected to basic values of human solidarity and he expressed the reasons why we continue to hope and work for a better future for all humanity.

Hobsbawm, as he himself realised as much as his right-leaning critics, came to exemplify the fundamental principles of humanitarianism, enlightenment, integrity, critical thinking and a belief in human capacities to improve their world by collective action. Such principles are today in very short supply in much of what is done by political leaders and written by historians and commentators.

 We can derive encouragement, however, from the knowledge that Eric Hobsbawm is certain to remain a continuing influence as a guide and teacher to future generations; his books, translated into so many languages, will go on attracting readers worldwide, and are never likely to go out of print or circulation. In a word, Hobsbawm was and remains an inspiration and he was a comrade to the very end. He will continue to tower well above his critics.

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This post was written by David Morgan

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